Staffing: Choose Your Mentors Carefully


Role models were instrumental in shaping the course of my career.

Thirty years ago, I became a perioperative leader for the first time in my career. My three-decade leadership journey wouldn’t have been possible without the help of several mentors who epitomized what it means to lead by example. While these leaders had vastly different styles and professional backgrounds, they each taught me valuable lessons on what real leadership looks like in action. Here are the four important lessons they taught me that have made a major difference in my career. 

Model your expectations
My first mentor was old school. She didn’t hesitate to advocate for her patients while also challenging surgeons or leadership when necessary. Her patients always came first, and she taught me the importance of modeling what you should expect from your staff. Watching her circulate, scrub and first assist was a lesson in excellence: she didn’t cut corners; she was efficient; she had great relationships with the physicians; and, most importantly, she let patients know she was always there for them. I’ve seen her work diligently to save a patient’s life, simply refusing to give up. When she was battling stage IV breast cancer, she put that same determination to work for herself as a true warrior. Her battle ended a few years ago when she died from complications of that horrible disease. While I miss her every day, her example still informs me as I navigate my leadership role and look to pass my knowledge along to others.  

Have honest conversations
My second mentor was a director who came from a highly functioning healthcare system into a hospital that seemed stuck in the dark ages — at least to her it did. Her frustration with the dysfunction she saw caused her to shout at us during management meetings. After personally feeling the brunt of her tough management style, I finally got up enough courage to share with her how her behavior was affecting me. I sat in her tiny office and calmly asked if the behavior was going to continue because if it were, I said I’d look for another job. She smiled and said, “No, it’s not going to continue. Thank you for letting me know.”

Fast forward to the next management meeting during which she voiced her frustrations to the group. I raised my hand and said, “Are you really talking to me?” She assured me that she wasn’t.

I had an honest conversation with my boss that my peers didn’t have the courage to have. After that, she respected me and we had an understanding that if she wanted to address something I had done, she would do it respectfully and in private.  

Develop emotional intelligence
I met my third mentor when we were both staff nurses. One of her favorite sayings was, “I’m not going to let them steal my joy.” In the throes of the OR — when surgeons aren’t happy with turnover times, staff is tired and the pressure is on — I often hear her voice in my head saying, “I’m not going to let them steal my joy.” She was one of the kindest staff advocates I’ve seen, and she was concerned about everybody — staff, physicians, leadership, her peers. I was always amazed at how she could maneuver through rough waters with her entire staff rowing in the same direction. I now understand she had a high level of emotional intelligence. She was highly attuned to the needs of others, effectively handled conflict by seeing both sides, established positive relationships with her team and created an environment where others could work at their best.

She became my manager for about a year and during that time once called me to work the night shift. I hated that shift, and she knew it. I also knew she wouldn’t call me to work it if she had any other option. Because of our relationship and her leadership style, I came in on my off day to work for her. Learning to sharpen your own emotional intelligence can help you to have the same effect on your own staff.

Cultivate key relationships
My fourth mentor was executive vice president at a Level I trauma center where I was the director of perioperative services. He was a former Navy officer who taught me about the importance of building relationships with executives and staff members outside of surgery, and up and down the organizational chart. This mentor encouraged me to connect with the CFO, the CMO, directors of other departments and key people within the organization — and work with them whenever possible. Our weekly meetings as a group were a masterclass in team communication and efficiency. The professional relationships we had forged helped us work together as close knit group that always strived to help individual members reach their goals. 

Learning to lead
One of the keys to success in leadership is having great mentors at every step in your management journey. Throughout my career, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from very effective, well-respected leaders. Seek out individuals who will take an interest in not only your career, but also in you as a person. Every aspiring perioperative leader should identify at least one key mentor who can help them at work and make a difference in their life. Once you see what great mentors can do for your career, you won’t be able to stop seeking them out. OSM

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